Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Committed-Number 100

Today marks a milestone for this blog. June 9th, 2011 was my first post. With this entry, it marks the 100th installment. The purpose of this column has been two-fold. First and perhaps most important it has served as a communication device for our school district and in some cases the larger education community. We have covered everything from politics to the very serious subject of bullying, and everything in between. For those of you reading online, you have probably noticed this weekly digest is posted sometime on Wednesday. This is deliberate because there are a number of consumers that read the print edition which is published in the Hudson Herald. By publishing on Wednesday, it is well ahead of the Monday deadline for publication in the following week's print edition. A big thank you to Dianna Darold for working with me on this project. I am incredibly indebted to her flexibility when there have been last minute changes to the print edition. Dianna has showed incredible patience and flexibility. Nonetheless, the goal has always been the same-to share information about the school district and to communicate news about our schools. 

From time to time we have stirred up some controversial subjects. Some of these subject have garnered pointed responses online, others have warranted letters to the editor in their own right. At the point of departure in our point of view I have always tried to keep a stiff upper lip. All of the comments that I receive have certainly been intelligent, well thought out lines of inquiry. While it hasn't necessarily changed my point of view, it most certainly has caused me to grow. I hope that thought is reciprocal. Certainly I have evoked emotion, some of you have laughed (either with me or at me), others have cried, and others have been angry. The point is, I hope that [you can say that] at least you were informed and you know the point of view of your superintendent and where he is coming from.

I freely admit that some of the posts have stunk. I make no claims to be a poet, comedian, journalist or an English teacher. I do spend time editing and proofing but there are no doubt errors in my grammar. From time to time there are misspelled words, and probably more times that not sentences that just 'don't quite seem right'. But rain, sleet or snow (as we are experiencing today), this weekly manifesto is published. The only times it isn't is when I have been on vacation or sick. 

The second reason I do this is that I want it to serve as a chronicle of my time and experiences here at Hudson, and later on in life. Sometime many years in the future I hope to be able to use this as a reflective piece on a successful and rewarding career. Who know, I may even write a book! 

A final reason for this blog is to demonstrate one of our "Keys of Excellence" here at Hudson. Affirm your Commitment. Whenever someone asks the question, "How do you find time to write a weekly column?" The answer is pretty simple: I am committed to making sure this happens every single week. There is no doubt that some weeks it is more painful than others. On those weeks when there are a thousand other things to do--it gets pretty hard. In fact, it would be very easy to skip a week. Or those weeks when I just can't seem to find something passionate enough to write about I think I would be justified.  

So my final thoughts this week are for my younger readers out there. (Surprisingly there seems to be quite a few.) When you make a commitment to something (or someone) in life see it through. Be a person of character. Be someone who can be counted on. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Common Sense Approach to the Theory of the Broken Window and Zero Tolerance

I have read a couple of interesting articles the last couple of days where schools have taken the drastic step of suspending very young students for playing with pretend guns. According to the Des Moines Register, a youngster was suspended for making a 'terroristic threat' with a bubble gun. The little girl in question was five years old. The articles I read were riddled with such examples. How about a student using a 'finger gun'? Suspended. 

The reason: Zero Tolerance. Since the tragedy at Sandy Hook, there have been more and more instances like these where students have been suspended by schools. Is this an overreaction? Well, on its face it certainly seem to be. Suspending young elementary students for pointing their finger at someone does not fall under the jurisdiction of our Zero Tolerance Policy. Our policy says the following:
Students found to possess a weapon, a look-a-like weapon or other dangerous objects may be suspended for up to 3 days by the principal and longer by permission of the superintendent depending on the facts and circumstances surrounding the incident and the student’s record.  Any student bringing a firearm or bomb to school or possessing firearms or bombs at school will be expelled for up to but not limited to one year.  Parents/guardians of students found in violation of this policy will be contacted and the students will be reported to law enforcement officials (p.33).
The key words in the policy are 'look-a-like weapon'. Obviously this requires the use of common sense rationale on the part of school officials.  Last time I looked at my index finger it looked nothing like a weapon, and likewise most bubble guns do not look like real weapons. But there may be instances where toy guns look like real guns and thus the policy would apply. For the policy to work properly, it requires logic and common sense. Admittedly I (and none of us) know the full circumstances of the examples described in the newspaper articles referenced above. There may be other variables at play we are unaware of. When it comes to student discipline, the general public very rarely knows the full story because student discipline records are protected by FERPA.

In any event, the larger issue is wrapped around school safety, what schools should do to keep students safe, and finally whether or not zero tolerance policies are effective. In past articles we have debated school safety, and in our district the Board of Directors continues to discuss where security and safety enhancements should be made. In the last couple of weeks, we have conducted a lock down drill, the first time ever with students. During that drill we were able to identify areas where improvements can be made and are in the process of doing so. These are great exercises and discussions for our district to engage in. Undoubtedly we will be able to make strategic and well thought out improvements as a result. 

In reference to whether or not zero tolerance policies work, I think the answer is dependent on the ultimate goal. If for example, the policy is to permanently remove a student for crossing a 'red line' (i.e. bringing a firearm onto school grounds), then yes the policy is effective. After all, students who bring firearms are expelled immediately (by law). If the purpose is to punish young kindergarten students for playing with squirt and finger guns, then I think it is an overreach.

The Detroit Free Press explains that zero tolerance policies have their roots in the 'Broken Window Theory'. In its simplicity, the theory states that a neighborhood where many buildings and houses are run down and have broken windows, then more windows will end up broken as a result. This suggests subconsciously that no one is paying attention, and there are so many broken windows it must be the accepted norm. Likewise in a neighborhood without broken windows, it is much more unlikely to occur (broken windows) because the subconscious suggestion is that vandalism is an unaccepted societal norm. (For the purposes of time and space I am taking only painting a description of the theory with broad strokes.)

When Rudy Giuliani was Mayor of New York City, he put the theory into practice by setting a goal to reduce crime in the city. While crime rates fell nationwide during his time in office, in New York City they fell at a much  more dramatic rate. How? Well, among many strategies employed, they began prosecuting minor crimes, for example aggressive panhandling, graffiti, and turnstile jumping. The theory states that if we tackle the small stuff, then the big stuff will not happen. 

At the very least, corollary evidence would suggest the theory has merit. However, as school officials we must make certain that when applying the broken window theory and zero tolerance, a common sense  approach prevails. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Academic Calendar 2013-2014

The Board of Directors is expected to adopt the calendar for the 2013-2014 school year following a public hearing on February 18th. I thought that since our public hearings typically don't garner a large following, it would be appropriate to offer some insight into the calendar and explain some of the new features for next year. 

As a matter of full disclosure, it makes little difference to me when school begins or ends, so long as we meet the prescribed days of attendance to meet the law. The calendar development process is collaborative. I spend time developing a couple of different options and present them to a group of teachers for review and input. Afterward, they are shared with the School Improvement Advisory Committee. Obviously the Board of Directors has the final say, and after they have a chance to provide input, the calendar is 'finalized' for presentation at the hearing. After hearing input from the public, the board can either move forward and adopt the calendar, or they can send it back for further work. Since the calendar has generally been a pretty benign issue, I presume the calendar will be adopted after the meeting next week. That being said, there are a few difference that you may be interested in learning more about. 

I have included a copy of the calendar below, my apologies that it may not be very easy to read, it had to be reduced to fit on these pages. If you would like to see a full size copy, please feel free to contact my office.

You may recall last year that the legislature had a spirited debate toward the end of the session regarding the school start date and the fact that many Iowa school districts do not follow Iowa, but instead receive a waiver from the Iowa Department of Education in order to start early. 

Under current law, school may not start before the week in which September 1st occurs, but school districts may start earlier if they receive a waiver from the Department. The majority of school districts in Iowa do request and are rewarded a waiver. The waiver is pretty much automatic, but this particular issue may be brought up again during the current legislative session.

Hudson's calendar follows the same start/stop formula as in the past, so we will once again be requesting the waiver. The trouble of course is that if the legislature makes a change this could cause a lot of consternation with school districts needing to all of a sudden change the calendar after contracts are signed and professional development is scheduled. If the legislation changes one has to assume we would have at least a year to plan for it. But anyway, school is slated to begin in Hudson for the 2013-2014 school year on August 15. I know what you are thinking, it seems earlier and earlier each year! Why do we do it?

Probably the biggest reason is that in recent years we have made an attempt to end our first semester prior to Winter Break. Additionally, it is tradition in Hudson to have a full week of spring break which aligns with the University of Northern Iowa. Without the early start date, it would be impossible to end the first semester before Winter Break or have a full week of Spring Break without school carrying into June.

Speaking of breaks, this year we are proposing two full weeks of break during the Winter. 

The biggest departure from previous calendars that you may notice is the early dismissal schedule for professional development. Please take note that the district is proposing a weekly early dismissal at 1:30. Why? There are a lot of reasons for this change.

Last year the Iowa legislature passed a law that requires teachers to work collaboratively outside the normal instructional day for a minimum of 36 hours. Many school districts are approaching this in a variety of ways and can use normal professional development to achieve this goal as long as teacher collaboration is a key component of the equation. In Hudson, the weekly early dismissal seems like a natural transition to this model.

We will be beginning our second year implementing the Professional Learning Communities at Work model with our teachers, where collaboration among peers is of paramount importance. Because of the large number of shared faculty and complex instructional schedule that we have in our district, it is difficult to schedule collaborative meetings with our teachers where they can all be available. By implementing a district wide early dismissal, it makes it much more viable to implement the PLC model with fidelity.

So what can you expect teachers to be doing during this early release time? The faculty will be answering four critical questions regarding the progress of your child's learning:
  1. What is it we expect our students to know? (Development of essential learning outcomes)
  2. How will we know they have achieved mastery? (Results of Common Formative Assessments)
  3. What will we do for children who have mastered the content? (Enrichment)
  4. What will we do for children who have not mastered the content (Remediation)
The work of the faculty will be focused on the analysis of data gleaned from the common formative assessments and designing instruction to meet the needs of students identified in questions three and four. We are tentatively planning for the first hour of our professional development to focus on those key areas. The second hour of professional development will consist of our elementary staff working on the development of essential learning outcomes in the area of reading with a goal of developing a recommendation for a new reading curriculum, while the high school focuses on 21st Century Skills and preparing for the implementation of the 1:1 Project in the high school.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

First Guessing

"Everyone wants to be a second guesser, few want to first guess," (Michael Smith, Superintendent of Schools at Tuscola Community Unit School District #310, Tuscola IL). That was a tweet posted this last Friday, and I couldn't resist tagging it as a favorite!

By the time the dust had settled last week, we had just over a day and a half of school. Three weather related cancellations in one week are certainly not a common occurrence. That pushed our total for the year to five snow days. The funny thing in reality is this hasn't been all that bad of a year. We have had only two major winter weather events: one right before Christmas, and the other one this last week. But when taken in totality, five snow days is quite a lot.

No matter what the decision is, I tend to get feedback (and input into the next cycle of winter weather). The feedback is both positive and negative. On the same day I have had people call me with "Good decision", to "I can't believe you cancelled school/didn't cancel school. The only thing we can do is look back with the benefit of hindsight to know whether or not we got it right. 

Thankfully weather forecasting has improved dramatically over the past several years! Although far from an exact science, these days a forecast typically begins to firm up about 24 hours prior to the first snowflakes flying. Once we have an idea of the forecast, the phone calls [between districts] begin. (I heard a comment last week where someone hypothesized that all superintendent's must talk to one another when making a school announcement. This is not a hypothesis, its a fact!) Phone calls between superintendents center on when calls and cancellations need to be made, what special circumstances may be going on in that particular district, and what the road conditions are like in that district. And when that call is made, superintendent's want to make sure that we are not out on a limb. While not a hard and fast rule that everyone is going to do the same thing, it is reasonable to use the counsel of colleagues when making these decisions. 

While a snow day or late start is a welcomed gift to many students and staff, affording them an opportunity to sleep late or enjoy a quiet relaxing day at home, it is anything but for school superintendents. The day begins very early during a snowstorm. My day begins around 4:30 a.m. with a long drive through the district to check the condition of the roads. During those drives, we are in constant communication with colleagues who are doing the same thing. Those conversations typically focus on the following salient points, "Where are you?" (If they are on a road that is adjacent to the district line it tends to be very valuable information.) "How are your east-west roads compared to your north-south roads? What are you going to do?"

No, it is not a given that we will do the same as Cedar Falls, or that Gladbrook-Reinbeck will do the same as Hudson. But, what those districts are doing is valuable information that we all take into careful consideration when making the decision that is best for our individual school district.